Skin Deep

Now, suppose I were to argue that African ethnocentrism, deep down in its heart, is actually a pretty shallow affair? Would you quarrel with me?

But think carefully about it. Why aren’t Ghana’s Nzemas ethnocentric towards Zimbabwe’s Matabele folks when they meet in London? Why don’t Akyems nurture resentment against Yorubas in London?

Isn’t there something about the territoriality of ethnic bigotry in Africa that makes you wonder whether it is indeed as virulent and wired to the roots of the African subconscious as some claim?

You might argue that Ghana’s Dangme folks don’t develop a judgmental attitude towards Kenya’s Kikuyu folks after encountering them for a couple of weeks because they don’t know them all that well. But isn’t that the whole point about bigotry – its supposed conjunction with ignorance? I mean all that anti-black racism one sees in Asia, does it come from any extensive knowledge of Africans?

Isn’t therefore a case to be made that African ethnocentrism is closer to nationalism than racism and therefore less irrational and more subject to the changes of times and seasons?

But what are these times and seasons then? It seems to me that virtually all of the ethnocentrism we see on these shores are driven by weak institutional design of the state system: recruitment into the civil service, urban planning, corruption conspiracies based on hometown ties, migration patterns, environmental pressures, and a paternal state that, by fostering cronyism, inspires notions of ‘kinship’ at odds with the modern civic system. In many of these matters, ethnic collusion is purely a phenomenon of convenience. Folks come together to rig the system opportunistically simply because they went to the same hometown school. Such conduct is rarely attributable to any deeply-shared, perverse, values developed ideologically with co-ethnic feeling at the base. In this sense, ethnocentrism operates quite differently from racism, and some of its variants like anti-semitism.

If the above is correct, then the approach that some of the early independence leaders (like those of the CPP in Ghana) took to curing so-called ethnic bigotry was counter-productive. By assuming that the mentality that was built up against racism (civic rights laws etc.) will work here (banning ‘ethnic political parties’, destroying centuriees-old kingdoms, forcing certain languages into extinction etc.) were misguided since they were focused on symptoms, even whilst the deep, festering, problems of badly designed civil institutions plodded on unaddressed.

As a shallow adornment, ethnic feeling could easily be converted into jewelry no more menacing than a serpent on a Pharaoh’s crown.

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